David and Penna were inseparable, bound together by the intensity of first love. Penna is a quiet 18 year-old outsider and the only child of a mother with whom she has a complex, strained relationship. She connected with David over their shared passion for art, and their all-consuming relationship created a cocoon around the pair, creating a sense of permanence and invincibility as they faced impending adulthood. But adulthood penetrated the cocoon like an IED as infantry member David headed to Iraq for a year of military service.
My fellow Redbud Writers Guild member Karen Schreck‘s young adult novel While He Was Away (Sourcebooks, 2012) may be targeted at older teens, but this beautifully-crafted story will resonate with adult readers as well. Schreck’s Penna offers readers a first-person narrative captures the endless leaden moments (punctuated by jolts of adrenaline generated from international phone calls and network news reports) that shape the waiting of those at home. Though Penna may have wished she could put her life on hold while waiting for David to return, life refused to cooperate with that longing. Her family story and her emerging relationship with David’s good friend Ravi and new friend Caitlin pulled Penna against her will into the present, even as David was being baptized by fire into his own new life on the other side of the world.
Schrek captures the push-pull of long-distance separation with lyrical precision:
My cell phone shrills like some kind of bad joke…I flip it open to silence it, but then I see: David’s number.
“I have to get this,” I babble, shoving the box and the ring into Tom’s hands. I say something into the phone to David. I say, Hi, I think.
“Penna,” David says. “You’re there.”
“I’m here.” I can’t see to move, so I don’t turn my back on Justine and Tom. “Where else would I be? I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”
David is quiet for a moment. Then: “This isn’t a test.”
I suck in a breath. “Good. I mean, I know that.”
Schreck captures the tension of the wait, as well as the way waiting shifts and reshapes relationships, in powerful and profound ways. There are no fist-pumping, living-happily-ever-after moments to wrap up the open-ended conclusion of While He Was Away (thank goodness) – but Penna demonstrates the kind of growth that waiting is supposed to cultivate in our lives.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can give Schreck is to express my hope that perhaps someday, she’ll consider writing a sequel to this beautiful book.
*I received an advanced reader’s copy of While He Was Away from the author.